Northern Ireland Chief Constable, Jon Boutcher, at the press conference to present the Kenova report on 8 March, 2024 in Belfast

British spies and the IRA

Blair, Clinton, Ahern et al were credited with putting together the Northern Ireland peace deal, but 800 British agents also played their part

This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The two most boring words in the English language? For a time, the answer from almost every news editor in London was “Northern Ireland”. Then came the Belfast Agreement, signed 26 years ago on Good Friday, 1998.

Three decades of deadlock had come to an end. The unlikeliest combination of political actors (and it’s worth listing them) — the Irish and British governments, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party, Progressive Unionist Party, Ulster Democratic Party, Alliance Party, Labour Coalition and the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition — had somehow reached an understanding. Only hours after it was reported that the negotiations in Stormont were close to collapse, the parties had agreed to a permanent ceasefire, the release of paramilitaries from jail, changes to the Irish Republic’s constitution and, most eye-catchingly of all, power-sharing.

Roughly 30 years after it had begun and following the loss of more than 3,500 lives, the terrorism we knew as “the Troubles” was over. Even if this deal was seen by some as a worrying compromise, for the rest of the world it was a triumph of hope over fear and, in that spirit, it came to be known as the Good Friday Agreement.

Why did any of this happen? The Troubles appeared to be the kind of intractable dispute that had the potential to keep going indefinitely, with hardliners on both sides forever refusing to lay down their arms. What changed? The narrative that emerged from the press office at No. 10 Downing Street under Alastair Campbell — and this is the story that stuck in the years that followed — was that a handful of outsiders, namely Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Bertie Ahern, as well as George Mitchell and Mo Mowlam, had come into the region, knocked some heads together and put together a historic peace deal. Look at the photographs accompanying the story, and these are the people who look as if they have won.

The Belfast Agreement went down as a victory for New Labour and as one of Tony Blair’s finest achievements. In a way, it was both. In his memoir, Blair explained that even before entering office he had decided “it was no longer in anyone’s interest to tolerate conflict”, “the whole thing had become ridiculously old-fashioned” and he was going to be the one to sort out the conflict in Northern Ireland. In his eyes, that’s what he did.

There’s more to this story than most people realised at the time, however, a shadow tale that’s only recently started to be told. Why did the Troubles end when they did? Well, Blair, Ahern, Clinton et al played their part. But so did a network of secret agents reporting to handlers in the police, the army and MI5, who had in most cases been gathering intelligence for many years by the time of the Belfast Agreement.

“Stakeknife” supplied the army’s agent- running organisation with a stream of valuable intelligence

Last month, I went to Belfast to learn more about the most notorious of these secret agents. I was there to see an embargoed copy of the interim report from Operation Kenova, the seven-year-long £40m investigation into the criminal activities of a British Army agent known as “Stakeknife”. Although the report did not confirm his name, Stakeknife was Freddie Scappaticci, a former IRA man and Belfast bricklayer who died last year aged 77.

For more than a decade, Scappaticci supplied the army’s agent-running organisation, the Force Research Unit, with a stream of valuable intelligence. But this came at a terrible price. “Scap”, as he was known, was part of the IRA’s Internal Security Unit, or “Nutting Squad” (to “nut” someone is to shoot them in the head), and he is believed to have taken part in as many as 14 IRA murders.

Over the last five years, I’ve been researching and writing about one of these killings, that of a Londonderry man called Frank Hegarty. I began to read the Kenova report in the hope of finding out more. Although the report revealed nothing about the specifics of Scappaticci’s alleged crimes, it gave a clear verdict on the army’s decision to keep running this agent for so many years.

It concluded more lives were lost as a result of Scappaticci’s activities than were saved, a damning verdict which has been echoed by others, most notably the former MI5 Director-General Eliza Manningham-Buller who described the Scappaticci case as “disgraceful”.

But there was one line in the Kenova report that received much less attention. The author of this report, Jon Boutcher, now Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, wrote that during the Troubles, “the security forces infiltrated the paramilitaries to a significant degree and many people were involved in giving them some kind of information. The overwhelming majority were not discovered.”

How many agents are we talking about here? We know about Scappaticci and several others who have been identified since the end of the conflict. But it turns out that there were more — many more. Several years after the Belfast Agreement, one senior intelligence officer said that as many as one in three of the IRA’s most senior figures was either close to a source or was an agent themselves. Another retired civil servant said that the British had reliable intelligence on the majority of the Provos’ seven-man “Army Council”.

Next came an interview with Father Denis Bradley, who, in his capacity as a member of the Consultative Group on the Past, had been shown classified government documents on how many agents were being run by MI5, the British Army and the police at any one time in Northern Ireland. He said that there had been as many as 800 agents in play.

You’ll have heard of the Cambridge Five, but probably not the Northern Ireland 800. It’s a staggering figure. Operation Kenova was a criminal investigation into just one of these agents. What can we say about the other 799? How successful were they in what they were asked to achieve, and did they play any part in bringing the Troubles to an end?

Most of these agents were supplying their handlers with what was known as “tactical” intelligence, which would, if acted upon, allow the security forces to prevent paramilitary attacks and reduce the IRA’s military capability. By the early 1990s, as many as eight out of ten IRA operations were either being called off, or they were broken up by the security forces.

The deadlock was much closer to being broken than many of us realised

Sometimes this was down to someone falling ill or a mistake made by an IRA member, but most of the time this was the result of a tip-off from a source, or information from an electronic eavesdropping device. According to senior IRA man Brendan Hughes, parts of his organisation were by this stage able to move “very, very little”, as he put it. “I think that’s what the technology did and what the intelligence services were able to do. I think they were able to effectively stop the IRA and contain it.”

The British also ran agents inside or close to Sinn Féin. There was an understanding amongst some MI5 officers, one that can be traced back to the early 1980s, that if there was to be a negotiated settlement then Sinn Féin needed to become a more respectable and powerful political force. That meant winning a larger share of the vote. When Willie Carlin, one of these agents inside Sinn Féin, told his handler about the party’s plans to steal votes in a forthcoming election, the response from his handler was, “Whatever it takes, Willie, whatever it takes.” Rather than alert the police, Carlin’s handler turned a blind eye. In the election that followed, Sinn Féin performed better than expected.

What was the impact of all this undercover work? This small army of agents and their handlers, as well as their support staff and those working in surveillance, appear to have helped change two things. They played a role in bringing parts of the IRA to a standstill, and they accelerated Sinn Féin’s transformation into a respectable political force, one that Unionists might be willing to negotiate with. Without these two developments, it’s hard to imagine peace talks taking place.

Which brings us back to the Belfast Agreement. Tony Blair deserves huge credit for coming away with a deal, and so do the leaders of the different political parties for deciding, in the words of Clinton, “to take a flying leap into the unknown against their better judgement”. But by the time they came together, the deadlock was much closer to being broken than many of us realised. Intelligence work appears to have played a critical part in this.

Espionage even influenced the negotiations themselves. After the agreement was signed, it emerged that the British had been tapping the phoneline used by Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator, during the talks. One of the drivers assigned to him and Gerry Adams — Roy “The Rat” McShane — was an MI5 agent. Although we don’t know the particulars of the intelligence gleaned from these sources, it would have enhanced the British government’s understanding of what everyone else was thinking, and that made a deal easier to close.

Most conflicts are resolved by soldiers, not spies. Armed disputes usually turn on questions of manpower, weaponry, motivation, supplies and tactics — not who has the best undercover agents. But the resolution of the Troubles was different, and, as we’re beginning to learn, the peace that began with the Belfast Agreement owed a surprising amount to intelligence work.

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